MLS parity – good or bad?

by James Kilpatrick

Chris RolfeIt is a question that is regularly asked in American Soccer circles. When this article was written (15th September) a remarkable 16 teams out of 19 are still in the running to make the play-offs and beyond that, the MLS Cup with – for most teams – 6/7 games left to play. In the Eastern Conference, 11 points separate leaders New York Red Bulls from Philadelphia Union who currently occupy sixth place, one position away from the play-off spots.

In the West it is even tighter. Nine points divide first and sixth (Seattle on 49 points, Dallas on 40). Who is going to win the Supporters’ Shield is anyone’s guess. It is hard to think of any time in a professional sports league where so many teams have a chance of winning a competition with so few games remaining.

For you as the reader though, whether you support an MLS team or not, do you find the prospect exciting that so many teams have a chance of achieving domestic cup glory irrespective of whether you come first or fifth or are you more of a traditionalist? One who believes that to win a domestic league title, you have to come first in your division. If your viewpoint is the latter, then the truth of the matter is you probably are not a fan of the way MLS is being run.

Western Conference StandingsEastern Conference Standings

 Major League Soccer’s senior Vice President for Competition Todd Durbin couldn’t state it more clearly:

In a league like MLS, a premium is placed on equal opportunity.

Back in the formative years of MLS, the opinion shared among league officials was that they did not wish to see a repeat of the NASL. Everybody knew of the New York Cosmos and the glitz, the glamour that surrounded them. They were truly a global brand, but at a great cost. The Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies were the Real Madrid and Barcelona in American Soccer, far greater investment was plunged into Florida and New Jersey based sides than any other. Unsurprisingly, this affected the competitive balance greatly as the Cosmos and Rowdies would rocket up the regular season charts, leaving a number of financially weaker teams in their wake. Jealousy saw owners of the league’s other teams looking to compete, investing in their own ageing stars.

Long story short, NASL owners spent more money on player salaries that could not be covered by league revenue. Financially the effects of the distinct lack of competitive balance ultimately led to the NASL’s demise – MLS does not wish to see a repeat of that. Those at Major League Soccer may not say it but the real motive behind the decision for competitive balance is more likely to be one to keep the league financially viable instead of necessarily striving to keep complete equality on the pitch.

NASLThe opposition is that fans enjoy the prospect of the minnows coming up against the power hungry giants. The excitement that derives from the opportunity to beat a team who is considered to simply be better is one of the reasons why many a soccer fan watches the game. The competitive inequality can act as a driving force for bolstering a league’s profile. Take Paços de Ferreira for example, who would have thought at the start of the 2012/13 season that a team who can only hold a capacity of 5,250 would qualify for the 2013/14 champions League play-offs ahead of the likes of Braga and Sporting Lisbon? It is one of those success stories that warms the hearts of soccer fans that their team can compete no matter the difference in finance and support.

The imbalance can also help in raising the profile as talent is concentrated to a few teams, giving off the perception that better soccer is being played therefore the quality is greater. MLS prevent giant-killing stories from happening as everyone is on an equal footing. Is that a such bad thing though? From an economic perspective, it is clearly far more beneficial for owners to see their team have a chance at success rather than just limiting a small number to dominate. In terms of short term excitement MLS may not be able to deliver what other European leagues can. However, what it can deliver is the long term knowledge for fans that their team still has a chance at lifting the MLS Cup in December, which can potentially result in a greater feeling of joy then winning that one match.

There is no doubt that competitive balance can have a detrimental effect on the quality of the product. However, without it the league may be facing the issues today that the NASL were only too aware of when the decision to fold the league was made in 1988. Besides, even with the stringent salary cap rule quality is being improved, the recent acquisition of Clint Dempsey to Seattle being a prime example of this. Whether you believe parity is good or bad for the growth of Major League Soccer, implementing competitive balance looks to have been an act of necessity rather than choice. MLS loves competitive balance and the 2013 season is the perfect advert for it.

2 Responses

  1. Ross Wood says:

    As much as English football fans grumble about any “American” influence on the Premier League and look in horror as franchises move around the country the one thing that American sports has got right is keeping their leagues competitive be it MLS or NFL. Having a rough financial parity and no equivalent of the Champions League will in time pay dividends for MLS developing a broader fan base and the quality will rise but it will rise collectively rather through a handful of dominant clubs.

  2. mucker1Dan says:

    It is a double edged sword is it not?

    One can substitute the word parity for mediocrity and suddenly having a competitive league from top to bottom does not seem quite so romantic.
    But also it is a bit of a misnomer that parity is purely responsible for so many teams still being competitive at this stage of the season, the fact that more than half the teams qualify for the playoffs normally has a lot to do with it, although I concede that the point differential between franchises this season is not great. Still, the very fact that there are playoffs can also give the illusion of parity by having that extra randomizing effect of knock-out rounds which is an effect obviously missing from championships decided purely on league performance.

    Parity must by its nature holds back the best while propping up the worse and while levels can be raised league wide it is a slow process and the league could never hope to compete with the best leagues in the world while parity is strictly enforced.
    But is parity being strictly enforced in MLS?
    I would say the concept is being stretched season by season as MLS finds new ways to satiate the demand for a better product and allow successful franchises to forge ahead – the ever more generous DP rule being just one example but still the reigns are in a tight grip.

    It is a philosophical, commercial and political argument these days rather than purely a financial one and I would also challenge the idea that parity was ever really about some American sporting ideal within MLS.
    It depends on whether you believe in the idea that a rising tide raises all boats, whether a free market and capitalist system ultimately advances the many or only the few . Commercially it is much easier to market a league that celebrates excellence over parity, the EPL has proven that if it were ever in doubt, but of course there are dangers with unbridled growth and while the ghost of the NASL still haunts many MLS HQ are unlikely to change course any time soon and given they have steered the ship through troubled waters into a safe port thus far, it is hard to argue for any dramatic change.
    That said, it is often forgotten that MLS began with the parity that was lauded as allowing the league to get to its current status, yet it very nearly died a horrible death. Many of the changes that allowed MLS to ultimately turn things around involved investment in stadiums, marquee players and changes in DP rules along with a rebranding which moved away from Americanisation and was more European oriented.
    All this suggests that parity alone is not the be all and end all of how to build a thriving soccer league in the US and that the argument is far more nuanced.
    Certainly Garber deserves all the praise heaped upon him for carrying out what has been quite a delicate balancing act between growing the league and keeping the finances under control (“parity”)

    Ultimately though that balancing act upon the fence can not continue forever and MLS will need to decide upon its place among the soccer world.
    It is all well and good saying you are aiming for the stars but it is just talk unless you have the delivery system to take you there.
    MLS in its current form can not compete with the soccer elite and never will. It can continue modest growth from where it is now and pick up decent TV deals domestically and exist quite happily but it can not hope to compete with much superior products without putting out its own product that stands up well not only in its own right but against these global leaders – that is common sense.
    MLS competes not only domestically with the traditional big US sports but also regarding soccer it competes both in a domestic and global market so it really is between a rock and hard place regarding expansion on the level required.

    One thing MLS does have in its favour though are the US Cities and lifestyle which are superior to some of the cities where even Super clubs reside, Manchester United to name but one (Nothing against Manchester,UK, I live here and love it but it is a scruffy little village compared to the major US cities. Of course that is not to say that Europe or other regions does not have beautiful cities that can compete with those in the US, just that they do not always have big soccer clubs and/or a comparable lifestyle.
    Still, that may get players interested in a US franchise instead of a European club and they may even consider a pay cut but we are still talking a hundred millions dollars + in transfer fees and wages for the best players.
    One of the only places MLS can get the hundreds of millions of dollars required for the transfers and wages of the top players is through TV deals but they won’t get those kind of deals until MLS has the product/audience that warrants it and they won’t get that until they get the players.
    Not quite a catch 22 though because if they lifted the financial restrictions on the most ambitious franchises and waved the DP rule it could be achieved but at the cost of parity and financial stability.
    I don’t think MLS has the balls for that and I doubt the ever maligned and much put upon US soccer fan would want to risk all either just to compete with the likes of Bundesliga, EPL and La Liga.

    So it looks as though parity and a happy mediocrity are here to stay for the foreseeable but Garber and Co are wise enough to sprinkle just enough stardust now and then to maintain the illusion that those stars are within touching distance.
    Even so, eventually MLS can still be a very worthy addition to the soccer world as the 4th or 5th best league in the World even on its current trajectory and there is nothing to say those leagues ahead of them will maintain their status.
    The future of MLS is a bright if not dazzling one and I would suggest a very wise investment for those billionaires looking to add to a little glitz and kudos to their financial portfolios.

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